Oh, Medea, You Are Killing Me.
SFSU Production of Euripides’ Classic: “Medea”
The original play is an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides which tells the tale of Medea and her husband Jason (of Argonaut fame). Medea, a demi-mortal princess, makes many sacrifices for her beloved husband. She kills people to protect and aid him, leaves her barbaric land and entire royal family, and has two children with Jason. When Jason leaves her for a Corinthian princess Medea does not take it well. She dismisses attempts by Jason and others to help her move on, and ends up alienating everyone, getting banished from the city, then murdering not only her two children, but Jason’s new princess, and the princess’ father Creon as well. Medea then escapes to Athens, having secured a deal with a nobleman who has agreed to protect her. No one ever really blames Jason for leaving Medea. It becomes clear pretty quickly that she is probably not that easy to live with.
The play, though not well received in its original ancient Greek debut, is an engaging story of a (psychotic) woman scorned and lends itself to many interpretations and creative folly and has been produced thousands of times in various forms and venues. It is a long-standing classic that shows how life situations are often fleeting, even when we don’t want them to be, and that “no one is ever really happy”. It illuminates the intense suffering caused by betrayal, but also stresses to let things go, learn from life, go onward, and forgive. It also offers a delicious role for female actors and room for various concepts.
This production is the version that has been translated by C.A.E Luschnig and was directed by longstanding figure in the SFSU Theatre Department, Rhonnie Washington, with catchy music by Dee Spencer. Despite all the talent in the room, this particular piece reminded me of a moment in life that maybe you can relate to, and that I have been unlucky to experience (more than once):
You are hanging out with someone you like, maybe a new person you are feeling an excitement for. The two of you are feeling the positive, fun vibes, then, all of a sudden: their crazy ex-girlfriend shows up, awkward and sloppy, making a scene. You want to crawl away and die, but you can’t resist any popcorn-worthy moment, so, being a semi-captive audience anyway, you take it all in. You watch the litany of discombobulated antics unfold and you wonder to yourself: why? It could have been so simple. It could have been easier than this, if everyone just did the work. This version of Medea was a bit like that. Slightly off, but not without potential, falling short of the heavy work that it needed to really bloom, taking it forward in new directions and possibilities. It left me shifting and trying not to laugh, a bit frustrated and slightly disappointed that I put on a cute outfit and took a shower for this.
Visually, it vacillated between classic theatre with a nod to ancient Greece and something more stark and contemporary. The Palace of Fine Arts was occasionally projected picturesquely in the background, which served as the backdrop for the warmly lit and more enjoyable scenes in the play. The proscenium stage was utilized well, with a few platforms on stage left and right (designed by John Wilson) that melded nicely with the images on the scrim; it gave the performers various levels and dimensions to work with. But, interspersed with that, was a major scene shift that would happen sporadically: brightly colored photo montages projected on the scrim of Medea and Jason and some child models who were meant to represent her children; very 80’s sitcom, with some cartoon graphics thrown in for comedic effect(?) These were used in an attempt to clarify the sadness and loss that Medea was feeling about the end of her marriage, but had no relation to the visuals or motif of the other scenes.
There was a singer, played by Tenaya Tollner. She would enter while the 80’s sitcom slide show was playing to perform various standard songs relating to Medea’s broken heart. Tollner was absolutely stunning, but dressed in a different style altogether from the cast, like a nightclub jazz singer? I couldn’t see the reason other than for her to look pretty, which she did, but it felt like a disjointed transition. Other than singing, she had no distinct character. I felt that a character could have been built out, perhaps making her the narrator as well, because the narration in the beginning needed to be clarified.
Tollner’s singing was right on the precipice but fell a bit flat. I believe she has it in her, but needed more musical direction, more time, more confidence. There was a bit of holding back and that was verging on painful because you just wanted her to really hit it. I do not blame Tollner for this. If you are going to make her sing Whitney Houston covers you need to get her to a serious place, no time for halfing it. The shifty discomfort in the room was palpable when the audience could sense that the singer was suddenly coming back out, it was like, “oh, here we go again, with the random photos and singing”. It was one of those moments when no one was sure if they were allowed to laugh or not. This was an element of tragedy that I don’t think was intended.
Creon (played by Kevin Lilich) and Medea (played by Weslei Thomas) were the stand-out players in the show. Their acting was dynamic and a joy to experience but it also magnified the other’s work. I don’t want to be mean to the young actors, I do feel, in this case, the director had a responsibility to them, and though he went into this piece with experimental gusto, his players needed more one-on-one work, to gain strength and insight. Their levels of expertise were so jarringly different.
One of the ensemble characters kept gesticulating and responding when one of the other leads were performing their monologues and this proved to be consistently distracting. It was clear that they were trying to add dimension to the scene by reacting, but the director may have suggested that they be okay with more stillness as the other players were doing, so the audience could focus more closely on the important dialogue that was happening downstage.
I don’t feel great about tearing this piece apart, but I can’t write about it honestly if I don’t. If I could redo this piece I would get rid of the photo montage, (which you can guess by now I really did not love), create a character for the singer, and diligently work on her songs so she delivers to her full potential. Keep the classic, simple scenes and brilliant, gorgeous lighting (designed by Caitlyn Gomes) perhaps add a slightly more modern or urban theme throughout, so the rap song in the middle doesn’t seem as out of place. Yes, there was rap song (one).
The video work near the end could be fleshed out and utilized rather than the photos, lending a more modern and creative twist to it. That being said, I kind of enjoyed the sudden sci-fi space feel at the end, but if they are going to do that, it needs to be consistent. The end, which consisted of a stand-off between Jason and Medea in which Medea was bouncing back and forth between a live delivery of her lines and a video playing of her floating in space and calling out Jason, reminded me a little of original Star Trek, (which I happen to obsessively love, have seen every episode over and over) but in this scenario, it was making me laugh and, again: I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to or not.
Was it supposed to be funny? I don’t think anyone knew. Those that discussed it with me later weren’t sure either. Kudos to the entire cast for hanging in and making it happen. However, I feel that some small adjustments and more rehearsal time would keep with the director’s seeming interest and creative vision and allow the piece to flow in a more entertaining and consistent way.
“Sentimental rigor and distance — as demonstrated by the neurotic ceremony of courtly love — increase passion,” ~ S. Dali
I’m coming with a hammer and breaking your bell jar.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light ,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.